The pieces are finally starting to come together for Sean Miller and Arizona basketball.
The defense was stellar. After months of the Wildcats being unable to stop anyone, Arizona held Belmont, the 11th-highest scoring team in the nation, to 20 points in the first half. The Bruins had difficulty getting good shots the entire night. The rebounding margin was scary, with the Wildcats boasting a 44-18 advantage.
Arizona’s offense was solid as well. It shot 57 percent from the field and 53 percent from three. The ball movement was crisp and the players looked energized. Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson stepped up and led and the freshmen made solid contributions.
It was the first solid game from start to finish for the Wildcats since the very beginning of the season. And because it has been so long since Arizona has put together a game of this caliber, some have questioned whether this is a good team at all.
There is no doubt this Arizona team has talent. Miller brought in the third-best recruiting class in the nation and the team can go nine or 10 deep. It has everything a championship contender needs: size, shooting, depth, experience, stars and coaching.
There is also no doubt that Arizona has the ability to beat top-level teams. In a matter of 11 days, the Wildcats beat the fifth-ranked Florida Gators, the ACC champion Miami Hurricanes and the 17th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs.
But once the Wildcats got into the Pac-12 season, they looked like a different team. Every game, no matter how good or bad the competition, was a struggle. Against the good teams they got pounded, including three losses to UCLA. They went from the overwhelming Pac-12 favorite to a fourth-place finish.
The reason Arizona was such a different team wasn’t because the competition was better (because it wasn’t); it was because their focus and composure was gone. It looked as though the team thought that because it had started 14-0, it could play however it wanted and victories would come.
As a result, the play was often times painful to witness. On both ends of the floor they became sloppy and careless. On offense the team was plagued by turnovers and bad shots. Sean Miller's motion offense consisted mostly of one-on-one play. Arizona struggled to score for long stretches in nearly every game.
The defense moved away from the principles that make Miller’s defenses successful. The pack-line system was not emphasized, but reaching and risk taking was. Intensity was only evident for the first 25 seconds of the shot clock. Then breakdowns happened on seemingly every possesssion. If the opposing team's offense was patient enough, they could count on the Wildcats losing focus and a good shot would become available.
The elder statesmen on the team led the scattered charge. Lyons turned the ball over as much as he got assists. His shot selection was awful. Solomon Hill too often led the team in turnovers and was rarely aggressive enough to showcase his full range of skills.
This trickled down the to freshman. Kaleb Tarczewski looked lost most of the year. Brandon Ashley started strong but hit a wall and Grant Jerrett consistently looked like he was pressing whenever on the floor.
The result? Five losses in the final 10 games. Three losses to UCLA. A drop from third in the rankings and a possible No. 1 seed to 21st in the rankings and a No. 6 seed.
Yet a change in Arizona’s play started in the middle of February. Hidden amongst three losses in the final seven games was a team tightening up the biggest problem areas piece by piece.
After a road trip during which Colorado exposed them and Utah took them to the brink, the Wildcats came home and pounded both Washington schools. For the first time in a while, the Wildcats offense was getting it going. Getting buckets wasn’t as much of a struggle. Tarczewski started to be a focal point.
Then the Wildcats went to Los Angeles. Against USC, the offensive improvement continued. In a loss, they scored 78 points and Miller’s motion offense was starting to look cohesive and fluid. The defense on the other hand was embarrassing. It allowed a bad team to score 89 points while shooting over 60 percent from the field.
No togetherness, no composure, no focus. But at least the offense was on the mend.
Colorado was the first game the defense looked like it was focused and strong. With constant pressure, Arizona made Colorado look like a second-class team. The offense was great for the first time in a while, and Arizona had its most complete game in months.
Next, the third UCLA game, Arizona came out strong and looked as though they would pull away from the Bruins several times. Arizona pounded them early and took a double-digit lead early in the second half. They were dialed in like they had not been in the first two UCLA games. They again looked like a top-10 team.
Eventually bad habits took over with terrible shots, decision and turnovers, but overall both the offense and defense looked like a different team. The leaders led and the freshman were confident and very involved. It was a step better than the Colorado game.
Then came Belmont in the first round. In a game many picked as an upset, Arizona continued what it started in mid-February.
Rick Byrd, the coach of Belmont explained what he saw and what it means (via ESPN):
I was more impressed with team I saw tonight than I was scouting them…I thought they were more engaged and focused and I think if they play that way, they can beat a lot of people.
The Belmont game was a culmination of a month’s worth of change. This is a different team than the one who lost to California at home. It is a better team than it was when it started 14-0. It is even better than the team which beat Florida in December.
And Byrd is right—playing this way, they can beat a lot of people.